Covid-19: Risking a rise in online child sexual abuse?

In recent years, various organisations have highlighted the issue of online-facilitated child sexual abuse and exploitation (CSAE). The current outbreak of coronavirus has led to many children spending more time online. As a result, various governmental agencies and children’s charities have raised concerns that there is an increased risk of online-facilitated CSAE. This article explores these concerns and what the UK Government has done to reduce the risks.

What is the problem?

Following an investigation into online-facilitated CSAE, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse found that the internet has enabled individuals to:

  • distribute indecent images of children;
  • groom and manipulate children to commit sexual acts on them; and
  • live stream the sexual abuse of children from around the world.

The inquiry also reported that there are millions of indecent images of children in circulation, with most sites hosting the material found on the open web. Research by the National Crime Agency (NCA) has supported this, finding that indecent material of children can be found in just three clicks.

What are the concerns around Covid-19?

Many organisations have raised concerns that the pandemic could lead to an increased risk of online-facilitated CSAE. For example, Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, has argued that children spending more time unsupervised online could mean that they may:

  • be more exposed to offenders through various channels, including online gaming, chat apps and social media;
  • be more inclined towards making explicit material to exchange with peers; and
  • become lonely and isolated, which offenders may try to benefit from.

The NCA has warned of a spike in online child sex offending during the pandemic. It urged children, parents and carers to ensure they know how to stay safe online. It said that there was a minimum of 300,000 individuals in the UK that pose a sexual threat to children. The NCA also reported that offenders in online chats have been discussing opportunities to abuse children during the crisis. The Australian e-safety commissioner also found that child abusers had created and shared an online grooming manual describing ways to manipulate and exploit children online during the pandemic.

Research by the Internet Watch Foundation has supported these concerns. On 20 May 2020, it reported that more than eight million attempts to access child sexual abuse material online had been made in the UK during the lockdown. However, it said this was a conservative estimate as the data used came from only three companies.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) has also argued that a shortage of moderators who combat online sexual abuse combined with children spending more time online has created a “perfect storm” for abusers to take advantage of the pandemic. It has raised concerns that moderators working from home would not be able to moderate the most harmful content due to data protection. In addition, the charity highlighted concerns about the impact of working from home on moderator’s mental health. The Government also raised these fears in evidence to the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee.

What is the Government doing to address the issue?

Funding announcements

In answer to a recent written question, James Brokenshire, Minister for Security, said that the Government was working with law enforcement, the UK intelligence community, safeguarding partners and the third sector to tackle offending and provide protection for vulnerable children.  

Setting out funding commitments, Mr Brokenshire said that the Government had made £1.6 million available immediately to the NSPCC to expand and promote its national helpline for adults. He also said that the Home Office would distribute a further £7.8 million in emergency support for charities helping vulnerable children who had been impacted by the virus. 

Guidance and resources

In April 2020, the Government published advice on how to help people, particularly children, stay safe online during the coronavirus outbreak. This guidance set out a four-point plan, recommending people:

  • review security and safety settings;
  • check facts and guard against disinformation;
  • be vigilant against fraud and scams; and
  • manage the amount of time spent online.

It also recommended that parents make use of parental controls to manage what children can access and have conversations with children to encourage them to speak to a trusted adult if they come across anything online that makes them uncomfortable.

The Government has highlighted the NCA’s #OnlineSafetyAtHome campaign and its ThinkUKnow resources, in addition to interim safeguarding guidance for schools and colleges issued by the Department for Education. It also said it was working with the Five Country partners to “galvanise industry action”.

Online harms white paper

The Government set out plans to tackle online CSAE in April 2019 when it published its Online Harms White Paper. The paper detailed harms, both legal and illegal, linked to internet use. Included in this list was the issue of CSAE. The Government argued that the issue presented a growing threat, with both the scale and severity of this type of offending increasing.

The white paper set out a programme of actions aimed at tackling the harms described. This included a plan to become the first country to establish a regulatory framework to tackle online harms. Detailing this, it said that it would establish a new statutory duty of care to make companies take more responsibility for the safety of their users and tackle harm caused by content or activity on their services. An independent regulator—proposed to be Ofcom—would oversee compliance with this duty and set out how companies should comply in codes of practice.

On CSAE, the Government said it would require companies to take “particularly robust action”. It said that it would introduce new powers, including the ability to direct the regulator on the content of the code of practice for CSAE. It also said that it would produce an interim code of conduct for CSAE while the regulator was established. In addition, from September 2020, the Government said it would require both primary and secondary schools to have lessons focusing on how to keep children safe online.

Providing an update on the progress of these proposals, Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, said in June 2020 that the Government would publish a full response to the white paper this year and would introduce a bill later in this session. Some opposition MPs have been critical of this time scale, arguing that online harms legislation is needed sooner. For example, Chi Onwurah, Shadow Minister for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, said “parents, the NSPCC and three Select Committees all say we need legislation now”.

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Image by Annie Spratt at Unsplash.